Even after 20 years, Sufiyah can't escape the memories of being sexually exploited by gang members as a teenager. • The tattoo makes it impossible.
There it sits, a small gang symbol etched between her left thumb and index finger. Every time she looks at her hand she is reminded of the abuse.
Finally, with the help of a Tampa tattoo business that offers free services to sex-trafficking survivors, Sufiyah is getting it removed.
"I had a dream that I looked down at my hand and it was completely gone," said Sufiyah, 35, who asked that her last name and address not be used for safety reasons. "When I had that dream, I thought, 'I'm ready. I'm ready to do this.' "
Thursday morning marked her second session at Tampa Tattoo Vanish, a small, one-room business on N Florida Avenue. Inside, owner Brian Morrison put on black surgical gloves and used an electric needle gun to break open Sufiyah's skin and apply a product that turns the ink into a scab.
The room has magazines and a television. Morrison said he tries to distract clients from the pain with the TV or conversation.
Morrison, 40, opened the store in March, he said, with the intent of helping human-trafficking survivors move on with their lives. He has lived in Tampa for 19 years and still works as an operating room nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital —North.
Morrison said he was sexually abused himself, though not as a result of human trafficking. That experience drove him to try to help other survivors.
"I can't ask people that have been through way worse than me to put their stories out there (without doing the same)," he said.
The other reason Morrison was interested? He loves tattoos, of which he has several.
"Every tattoo on my body is there because I wanted it there," he said. "It's overwhelming to me to think these people were drugged and tattooed without their permission."
Often, tattoos on sex-trafficking survivors are marks of property, he said. And they can make it hard for survivors to find work.
Sufiyah said every time an employer asks about her tattoo, she has to decide how much of her history to divulge.
"That was always kind of difficult for me, and it was triggering, because it would bring up all this, 'Hey, this was something gang-related, this was something to do with exploitation,' " she said.
The tattoo Sufiyah has had since age 15 represents a gang she once considered her family. She was just 12 when she was sexually abused for first time.
"I was always opposed to sexual exploitation and selling your body," she said. "But sometimes, exploitation occurs more subtly, especially during the grooming process.''
She and Morrison got in touch through social media a few months ago as he was trying to partner with survivor groups.
"This is exactly what I want to do to help," he said.
His initial plan was to meet with survivors directly, but he was told many would be apprehensive about inviting someone new into their house.
So he arranged a more flexible schedule at the hospital and set up a storefront. It's taken about $9,000 of his own money to get Tampa Tattoo Vanish off the ground, he said.
The American Academy of Dermatology and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommend tattoo removal with laser surgery by a dermatologist rather than the procedure Morrison uses, which was developed by another nurse in 2003.
Any method that's not validated by an FDA study gives Tampa dermatologist Dr. Milan Lombardi pause, he said, though he said he was unfamiliar with Tampa Tattoo Vanish.
Morrison said the cost of laser tattoo removal is often prohibitive for his clients, and said he wishes there were free laser tattoo removal for survivors.
Using the Tattoo Vanish method, the tattoo usually disappears after about five treatments, he said, and patients need about six weeks between treatments. He charges paying customers about $120 an hour. So far, he's had four clients who are sex-trafficking survivors.
Sufiyah didn't realize she had been a victim until she was 30.
Now she works with Selah Freedom, a national nonprofit that mentors survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, which can be any type of sexual exploitation of minors in exchange for something of value, such as money, food or shelter.
Her work with other survivors pushed her to remove her tattoo.
"I think that this is a wonderful opportunity for them, so it's something that I should have the courage to take that step myself," she said.
Contact Langston Taylor at [email protected] Follow @langstonitaylor.